This is an update on the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Kyrgyzstan from January to April 2021, prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.
During the period covered by this update, the authorities pushed through the controversial new constitution initiated after the October 2020 political crisis. Critics fear that the new constitution, which was approved in a referendum held in early April 2021, might legitimise authoritarian rule and undermine the rule of law in the country by granting the president excessively broad powers without an effective system of checks and balances.
There are also concerns that some of the provisions of the new constitution might result in violations of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly. A broadly worded provision that allows for restricting events considered to contradict national moral and ethical values is of particular concern against the background of other recent initiatives to promote so-called traditional values, a concept that has not been defined by law and that might be arbitrarily and discriminatively applied. Political decision-makers and activists opposed to liberal principles have long accused civil society activists who advocate for universal human rights, including the rights of women and sexual minorities, of promoting values ‘’alien’’ to national culture and traditions. Such arguments have also been used by the proponents of a draft law pending in parliament that would increase control over NGOs.
Kyrgyzstan: Constitution draft and Japarov decrees hint at authoritarian futurehttps://t.co/ldENMNQBAn— Eurasianet (@eurasianet) February 7, 2021
President Sadyr Japarov, who rose to power after the October 2020 political crisis, insisted that Kyrgyzstan would remain “democratic’’ following the adoption of the new constitution and that there would be no politically motivated persecution under his rule. However, the period covered by this update saw a series of cases of intimidation and harassment of activists and journalists, which reinforced concerns about a worsening climate for free speech and persecution of those who criticise, oppose and challenge the policies of the current authorities.
Those subjected to pressure included prominent critics of the new constitution and participants in peaceful rallies against the constitution and other perceived threats to the rule of law in the country. Tilekmat Kurenov, one of the organisers of a 9th March 2021 rally against the new constitution faced criminal charges for allegedly calling for the violent seizure of power and mass riots through Facebook posts. First detained in mid-March 2021, he was transferred to house arrest in late April 2021 as the investigation in his case continued. Several other activists were also targeted by law enforcement authorities in what appeared to be deliberate acts of intimidation, including by being held under surveillance, summoned and questioned.
In one case, security services questioned and searched the homes of three media workers associated with a candidate who challenged Sadyr Japarov during the January 2021 presidential election and later was arrested on corruption charges. This law enforcement operation was conducted because of the allegedly offensive comments made by visitors to a Facebook page where the three media workers had posted articles critical of the current authorities.
Outspoken activists and journalists have also increasingly faced online threats. Among others, Ulan Usoiun, a youth movement leader involved in organising peaceful so-called Sunday rallies for the rule of law in Bishkek, and journalist Ali Toktakunov, who is well-known for his investigative work on corruption, reported receiving regular threats on social media. These threats often originate from so-called social media trolls, or fake accounts. Due to the efforts of local investigative journalists and media experts, Facebook took down several hundred fake accounts in Kyrgyzstan, including accounts used to influence public opinion in connection with recent elections in the country.
In another worrying development, there were new cases in which journalists were intimidated and attacked when carrying out their journalistic activities and covering events on the ground.
Most peaceful protests held during the reporting period took place without interference, although activists involved in rallies against major political changes were subjected to pressure, as described above. However, in April 2021, a group of aggressively behaved men intimidated and harassed the participants in a peaceful rally against violence against women in Bishkek, which had been prompted by a shocking case in which a young woman was kidnapped and murdered. Police failed to curb the actions of the rally intruders, who were using anti-NGO, anti-LGBTI and anti-feminist slogans.
Local authorities in Bishkek made a new attempt to restrict freedom of assembly through the court system, with a local court issuing a two-month blanket ban on assemblies in the centre of the capital in February 2021. A civil society movement successfully challenged this ban, as a result of which it was repealed.
Parliament passed a new restrictive trade union law at the final and third reading in March 2021, despite serious criticism by labour and human rights organisations. The Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan called on the president to veto the law, saying it deprives workers of the right to freedom of association and grossly violates international labour conventions ratified by Kyrgyzstan.
A court case on defamation against two leading independent media outlets finally ended after dragging on for more than a year. The two outlets and a journalist had been sued for over half a million USDby the family of a former top customs official who was implicated in a high-profile corruptioninvestigation published by the outlets.The family dropped their claims following the conviction of the ex-official on corruption charges in February 2021. However, he was only given a lenient sentence in the form of a fine, and a second investigation against him on money laundering charges was closed. Journalists addressing issues relating to the ex-official have also faced intimidation.
The Supreme Court overturned a lower-level court’s decision in the case of the international petitions site change.org, which was blocked in Kyrgyzstan after a petition calling for the impeachment of then President Sooronbay Jeenbekov was posted on it in summer 2020. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the site again became accessible in the country.
These developments are described in more detail below.
As covered in the previous update, Sadyr Japarov, who rose to power after the October 2020 political crisis in Kyrgyzstan, won a landslide vote in the early presidential election held on 10th January 2021. His victory came against the background of concerns about the lack of a level playing field and the misuse of public resources in his favour.
Japarov has advocated in favour of extending presidential powers, and in a referendum held on 11th April 2021, citizens voted in favour of a new controversial constitution that significantly strengthens presidential rule. According to official information, the voter turnout in the referendum was 35 percent, with 79 percent of the voters supporting the constitution.
As covered before, the first version of the new draft constitution presented in November 2020 drew heavy criticism, with its opponents warning that it would legitimise authoritarian rule and weaken human rights protection. They dubbed it a ‘’khan-stitution” – in reference to the historic autocratic rulers of Central Asia.
Following the outpouring of criticism, the draft constitution was revised under the oversight of a so-called constitutional conference. However, while some parts of the text were improved, its key features remained unchanged in the version that was approved during the April 2021 referendum.
A joint opinion issued by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s independent advisory body on constitutional matters, and OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) found that numerous provisions of the constitution were ‘’not in line with international standards and OSCE commitments’’. The joint opinion concluded that a fundamental concern was ‘’the overly prominent role and prerogatives of the President over the executive and the other branches of power, with a weakened role of the Parliament and potential encroachments on judicial independence’’, which ‘’creates a real risk of undermining the separation of powers and the rule of law in the Kyrgyz Republic.’’The joint opinion also found that the timeline and procedures for the adoption of the constitutional amendments ‘’raise serious concerns due to the lack of respect for the principles of rule of law and legality, and the absence of meaningful and inclusive public consultations and debate in parliament.’’
The president dismissed the criticism of the new constitution, and insisted that Kyrgyzstan ‘’will remain a democratic country”.
Intimidation and harassment of activists and journalists
The period covered by this update saw a series of cases of intimidation and harassment of activists and journalists, which reinforced concerns about a worsening climate for free speechand the persecution of those who criticise, oppose and challenge the policies of the current authorities, in particular the controversial new constitution pushed through following the change of power in October 2020. Outspoken activists and journalists were subjected to both online and offline attacks, threats and detentions.
In a case of particular concern, a civil society activist campaigning against the adoption of the new constitution was criminally prosecuted because of social media posts:
In what appeared to be coordinated actions, law enforcement authorities also targeted several other activists who spoke out against the constitution and took part in the 9th March 2021 rally:
Another prominent critic of the new constitution was also subjected to allegedintimidation by law enforcement authorities:
Ulan Usoiun, leader of the Bashtan Bashta youth movement and one of the organisers of peaceful so-called Sunday rallies for legality held in Bishkek since last October 2020 (see more under Peaceful Assembly), faced various forms of intimidation:
In the following case, security services targeted three bloggers and media workers associated with Abdil Segizbaev, a former security service chief who ran in the January 2021 presidential elections on a platform critical of Sadyr Japarov and who was arrested on corruption charges after the elections:
Another journalist was summoned for questioning in connection with the criminal case against Abdil Segizbaev:
In other cases, journalists and activists were subjected to intimidation after raising issues of government corruption and unlawful measures:
Civil society representatives expressed alarm at the trend of growing pressure against activists and journalists. Speaking on behalf of several civil society activists, Atyr Abdrakhmatova published a video appeal to President Sadyr Japarov in early March 2021, urging him to publicly condemn this trend and ensure that incidents of intimidation and harassment are immediately investigated and that those responsible are held to account. She stressed that criticism or dissent should be viewed as ‘’an opportunity to improve the quality of government decisions”.
Some political figures also offered support to activists. Member of Parliament Natalia Nikitenko sent a letter to Minister of Interior Ulanbek Niyazbekov and General Prosecutor Kurmankul Zulushev on this issue, stressing that putting ‘’pressure on activists by authorities gives rise to concerns about the sustainability of democracy in Kyrgyzstan”.
The presidential administration denied that activists and journalists were subjected to pressure and insisted that the authorities had only takenlegal action against individuals suspected of crimes. In an interview that President Japarov gave to Radio Azzatyk, the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on 15th March 2021, he claimed that there is currentlyno persecution of politicians, activists or journalists in the country and that, unlike in the past, there will not be any persecution of this kind under his leadership.
Attacks on journalists when carrying out their professional activities
There have recently been new cases in which journalists have been intimidated and attacked when covering events on the ground.
On 28th February 2021, journalists from Radio Azzatyk and Kloop were intimidated during a rally held in Osh in support of ex-customs official Raimbek Matraimov, who at the time was in pre-trial detention on money laundering charges (see more below). Rally participants warned the journalists to be ‘’careful’’ and shouted intimidating comments at them, such as threatening to ‘’kick them out’’ and telling them to ‘’go away’’. One of the rally participants attempted to take away the phone of Kloop journalist Khamidullo Uzakov, while another pulled Radio Azzatyk journalist Dastan Umotbay uulu by the hand. However, fortunately the situation did not escalate and none of the journalists was harmed. In a statement issued after the rally, the department of the ministry of interior in Osh said that no violations of the law had taken place. Civil society representatives condemned the threats voiced during the rally as an attack on independent media and regretted the lack of any official response.
On 30th April 2021, journalist Zulfiya Turgunova from the Sputnik news site was physically assaulted when covering hostilities on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border which had broken out two days earlier. The incident took place during a meeting that the head of the SCNS and a regional government official were holding with residents of the Batken region who had been affected by the hostilities. According to the journalist, a group of unknown men suddenly grabbed her and dragged her on the ground before letting go of her. None of the law enforcement officials present responded or intervened in her support.
IPHR condemns today’s assault on Kyrgyzstani journalist Zulfiya Turgunova, who was covering the hostilities on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border, as well as the reported failure of law enforcement officials to promptly intervene to stop it.— IPHR (@IPHR) April 30, 2021
Read more here:https://t.co/9mqjto09K7
Social media trolling
Based on information provided by investigative journalists and experts from the independent Kloop news site and the Media Policy Institute, Facebook deleted around 400 fake accounts involved in attempts to manipulate public opinion in Kyrgyzstan. Among these were a network of fake accounts focused on influencing public opinion in connection with the parliamentary election in October 2020 and the presidential election in January 2021.
Media investigations have shown that the use of fake social media accounts for political purposes is a growing problem in Kyrgyzstan, with such accounts systematically engaging in efforts to praise those who pay them and attack their opponents, including political figures, journalists and activists. For example, an investigation published by Kloop at the end of December 2020 shed light on the operations of so-called troll factories in Kyrgyzstan, including those conducting orchestrated campaigns in support of current President Sadyr Japarov, previous president Sooronbay Jeenbekov, and ex-top customs official Raimbek Matraimov, his family and the political party associated with him.
Investigative journalist Ali Toktakunova, a frequent target of trolling himself (see more above), told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that the activity of fake accounts took on a new intensity following the October 2020 political crisis. In his assessment, the authorities use fake accounts to distract attention from the serious economic and political problems the country is currently experiencing and to silence those who speak openly about these problems. Other experts have pointed out that, in addition to trolling, journalists and activists are increasingly the targets of online attacks by real social media users who do not hide their identity.
Media and civil society organisations have deplored the increasing online attacks on journalists, lawyers and civil society activists, stressing that such attacks are aimed at stifling the expression of alternative views and increase the risk of physical violence against those affected.They have called on those in power, including President Sadyr Japarov, to publicly and unconditionally condemn online threats and attacks against journalists and activists by their supporters. However, in the interview Japarov gave to the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in March 2021, he said that he does not consider online threats against journalists, including those originating from fake accounts, to constitute any form of pressure as internet users can write ‘’whatever they want’’.
Propaganda for ‘’traditional’’ values
President Sadyr Japarov has called for increasing efforts to promote so-called traditional values in Kyrgyzstan and, since coming to power, there have been several controversial initiatives to this end.
A decree signed by the president on 29th January 2021 calls on state bodies to adopt measures aimed at promoting ‘’traditional’’ values in the education system and other areas and recommends media outlets to ‘’propagate the values of a traditional society, the ideals of the family, a healthy lifestyle, love for the Fatherland and service to the people.’’
Moreover, the new constitution, approved in the April 2021 referendum, features a provision that allows for restricting events that contradict “moral and ethical values’’ or “the public consciousness’’ of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic, without defining these concepts.
Civil society representatives have expressed concerns that the efforts by the authorities to promote “traditional’’ values might result in undue restrictions on freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms and undermine equality and non-discrimination, in violation of Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations.
Experts from the Adilet Legal Clinic stressed that vaguely worded concepts such as “moral and ethical values’’ or “the public consciousness’’ do not meet the requirements of the principle of legal certainty and might be arbitrarily interpreted. They also stressed that moral norms and traditions differ a lot within Kyrgyzstan’s multi-national population and expressed fears that some kind of “’morality police’’ might emerge.
It is of further concern that the January 2021 decree also encourages media outlets to “promote a positive image of the country at the international level’’, in an initiative reminiscent of the policies pursued by some of Kyrgyzstan’s more authoritarian neighbouring states, which use pro-government media outlets as tools for the dissemination of propaganda praising the regime.
Defamation case against leading independent media finally dropped
As covered before, following the publication of a high-profile media investigation into corruption in November 2020, a key figure featured in this probe and his family filed defamation lawsuits involving unprecedentedly large claims for damages against Radio Azattyk and Kloop, as well as journalist Ali Toktakunov. Former Customs Service Deputy Head Raimbek Matraimov and members of his family requested damages totalling 45 million Som (over 500,000 USD). A local court began hearing the merits of the case in January 2020, but the trial was repeatedly postponed. In April 2021, the Matraimov family finally dropped their claims in this controversial case, after it had been pending in court for a year and a half. When informing the court about this decision, the family nevertheless referred to the findings of the media investigation as “false’’ and “far-fetched’’.
The family’s decision to withdraw their defamation lawsuits came after the 11th February 2021 conviction of Raimbek Matraimov on corruptions charges, to which he pleaded guilty. However, in a widely criticised ruling, the ex-official was fined only around 3,000 USD since he had cooperated with the investigation and agreed to a compensation scheme. A week after the ruling, Matraimov was re-arrested on new charges of money laundering. However, this case was closed in mid-April 2021 and the ex-official was released from custody.
The investigation published by Radio Azattyk and Kloop together with the global Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCPR) in November 2019 revealed systematic corruption within Kyrgyzstan’s Customs Service and implicated Raimbek Matraimov in the illegal funnelling of hundreds of millions of dollars abroad. The United States government has sanctioned Matraimov under its 2012 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Supreme Court overturns decision sanctioning the blocking of international petition site
As covered before, the international change.org site became inaccessible in Kyrgyzstan after a petition that called for the impeachment of then President Sooronbay Jeenbekov was posted on it in summer 2020. In September 2020, a local Bishkek court declared the site “extremist” and officially ordered it blocked. Based on an appeal by the lawyers of the international petition site, the Supreme Court overturned the lower-level court’s decision in March 2021 and sent the case back to this court for reconsideration. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the site was unblocked in the country.
Constitutional guarantee excluded
Kyrgyzstan’s law on assemblies sets out a notification procedure for assemblies but does not require the organisers of protests to obtain advance permission from authorities, unlike in other Central Asian countries. Up to now the constitution has also contained a provision prohibiting measures to ban or restrict assemblies due to the failure of the organisers to provide advance notice or to do so in accordance with applicable procedural requirements. However, this provision was excluded from the new constitution, approved in the April 2021 referendum (see more under general developments above). Civil society organisations fear that the absence of this constitutional guarantee might result in restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in violation of international standards.
Protests against draft constitution and other post-crisis initiatives
In recent months, political and civil society activists have held a number of peaceful demonstrations to protest against the controversial draft constitution and other measures initiated since the October 2020 political crisis, which are perceived to threaten democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the country. These include so-called Sunday marches for legality regularly held in central Bishkek since November 2020. Moreover, on 9th March 2021, several dozen people gathered outside the White House – the seat of the president and parliament — to call for the withdrawal of the controversial draft constitution and the dissolution of the current parliament. At the time, the draft constitution was under consideration in parliament, which eventually approved a law on holding a referendum on the constitution on 11th April 2021.
While the protests took place without interference, several activists who were prominently involved in them were later subjected to intimidation and harassment (see more under Expression).
— Kloop (@kloopnews) March 9, 2021
Women’s rights rallies
On 8th March 2021, International Women’s Day, peaceful marches in support of the rights of women were held in both Bishkek and Osh, the country’s second largest city. This year the march in the capital took place without interference, unlike last year, when the participants in a corresponding event were first attacked by unknown perpetrators and thereafter detained by police. Several participants in the 2020 march were fined for allegedly disobeying the lawful orders of police. As covered in the previous update, in November 2020, the Supreme Court overturned a lower level court’s decision, which had found that the police response in this case was lawful. Following appeals, the fines imposed on four participants in the 8th March 2020 event were repealed by the court, while the fine was upheld in the case of one activist, and the appeal of a sixth participant was rejected on procedural grounds.
On 15th April 2021, a new attack on a women’s rights assembly took place: the participants in a peaceful rally against violence against women held outside the building of the Ministry of Interior in Bishkek were assaulted by a large group of aggressively behaving men. These men, who had first gathered for a separate anti-LGBT and anti-NGO assembly, intimidated the rally participants, shouted hateful comments at them, pushed them away and demanded an end to the rally. As police failed to curb the actions of the intruders, the participants in the women’s rights rally eventually dispersed. Some of the rally participants subsequently filed complaints with police concerning the actions of their assailants. The women’s rights rally had been prompted by the murder of Aizada Kanatbekova, a 27-year-old resident of the capital who was forcibly abducted and later found dead in developments that caused widespread indignation. The rally participants demanded the resignation of Minister of Interior Ulanbek Niyazbekov because of the flawed police response in this case — police did not take prompt action when the young woman’s family first reported her abduction. An earlier rally held in the capital on the same topic on 8th April 2021 took place without interference.
Kyrgyzstan: National-patriots attack women’s rights rallyhttps://t.co/YAsDMyzP82
— Eurasianet (@eurasianet) April 17, 2021
Other peaceful protests
During the period covered by this update, citizens also held many other peaceful assemblies, thus actively exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly despite the continued COVID-19 pandemic. LPF documented more than 30 assemblies in Bishkek and elsewhere during January to March 2021.
These are only a few examples of protests that took place in the capital:
New blanket ban on protests in the capital
As covered before, in recent years, courts have repeatedly imposed problematic blanket bans on holding assemblies in the centre of Bishkek. In February 2021, a local court issued a new blanket ban following a request from local authorities to prohibit all assemblies in the centre of the capital from 22nd February to 22nd April 2021. To justify their request, the authorities pointed to the growing number of rallies held in the capital, in particular the so-called Sunday marches (see above) and argued that these rallies disturb local residents who do not participate in them, “resulting in negative feelings and concerns about personal safety’’. The authorities stated, among others, that rallies involving large crowds of people cause traffic congestions and the blocking of pedestrian crossings. They also referred to the ‘’unstable’’ situation with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic. These vague arguments did not meet the strict requirements set out by national and international law for permissible restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly.
The 8/365 movement, which advocates the rights of women and sexual minorities and organised the women’s rights rally held in Bishkek on 8th March 2021 (see more above), successfully challenged the court blanket ban on procedural grounds. Thus, on 10th March 2021, Bishkek City Court overturned the lower-level court’s decision. While the ban was in force, a number of assemblies were nevertheless allowed to take place in central Bishkek.
Decisionmakers discredit NGOs, call for increased oversight
Political decisionmakers continue to use negative and discrediting language in relation to NGOs. During a parliamentary discussion of the draft constitution held on 11th March 2021, MPs Baktybek Raiymkulov and Shailoobek Atazov accused NGOs of undermining “traditional values’’ and posing a threat to the state, and called for increasing checks of NGOs. Raiymkulov called for a third and final reading in parliament as soon as possible of a widely criticised draft law, which introduces new financial reporting obligations for NGOs. As covered before, parliament passed this draft law initiated by Raiymkulov on the second out of three required readings in June 2020. Since then, it has been pending further consideration.
And we're back to concerning news from #Kyrgyzstan, as these two MPs push for the passing of anti-NGO draft law suspended last summer – together w/ odious draft Constitution to be voted on 11 April these are signs of a civil society crackdown in the making https://t.co/WQGV9plOdn
— Syinat Sultanalieva (@SyinatS) March 11, 2021
The new constitution, approved in the April 2021 referendum (see more above under general developments), contains a provision that specifically requires public associations to ensure the transparency of their financial and economic activities. Against the background of the recent attempts to step up control over NGOs, civil society representatives fear that this provision might be used to justify excessive and discriminatory oversight mechanisms targeted at civil society organisations.
Pressure on youth movement
The Bashtan Bashta youth movement reported being subjected to intimidation. In a statement issued on 27th February 2021, the movement described two incidents in which law enforcement officials attempted to listen in to the discussion at events organised by it. The Bashtan Bashta movement believed that these attempts were aimed at putting pressure on it because of its civic engagement. The movement has been involved in organising the so-called Sunday marches held in Bishkek since November 2020 to protest against the new controversial constitution, corruption and other measures considered to undermine the rule of law in the country (see more under Peaceful Assembly).
Parliament passes restrictive trade union law
On 31st March 2021, parliament passed a new restrictive draft trade union law on third and final reading. As covered before, labour organisations and human rights groups have seriously criticised this draft law for undermining independent trade union activity in violation of international standards. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has expressed concern that the draft law establishes “a monopoly” on trade union activity and allows for interference into the internal affairs of unions.
Following the parliament’s adoption of the draft law, the Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan called on the president to veto the law, stating that it ‘’deprives workers of the right to freedom of association’’ and “grossly violates’’ ILO conventions. The Federation also pointed to procedural violations during the consideration of the draft law in parliament and regretted that its comments on the draft law had not been taken into account.
At the time of writing, the draft law was still with the president’s office.
Struggle for justice for deceased defender
The struggle for justice continues in the case of human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, who tragically died in prison in July 2020 after being denied adequate medical attention for COVID-19 like symptoms. To date, the authorities have failed to ensure an independent and impartial investigation into the circumstances of the defender’s death.
Askarov’s lawyer, Valerian Vakhitov filed a petition with the General Prosecutor’s Office, requesting it to initiate a criminal case in relation to Askarov’s death. If the criminal case is terminated or stalled, Vakhitov plans to turn to the UN Human Rights Committee.
With the help of lawyers, Askarov’s wife, Khadicha Askarova prepared a petition to the UN Human Rights Committee concerning the government’s failure to implement the Committee’s 2016 decision on Askarov’s case. In its decision, the Committee found multiple violations of the defender’s rights and called for his immediate release, the quashing of his conviction and the granting of adequate compensation to him. As covered in the previous update, in November 2020, the Supreme Court declined to recognise Askarova as the defender’s legal successor with respect to a lawsuit he had filed against Kyrgyzstan’s government on this matter prior to his passing. In accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision, Askarova is not entitled to claim compensation from the government because of the violations the Human Rights Committee found in her husband’s case. She is seeking to challenge this decision and posthumously clear his name.